Why You Confuse People’s Names

jay sound

I’ve been on both ends of the Confuse People’s Names phenomenon.

In high school, I was part of a group called the Contemporary Issues Forum. Outside of school, we were part of a larger social group called Holiday Unlimited, whose motto was stolen from a Beatles song: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”

One in the group was a woman I’ll call Catherine. Repeatedly, she word refer to me as George. This really bugged me, especially because two other guys in the tribe were each named George. But I’m rethinking this.

I belong to a Facebook group called A Way With Words. A guy named Mike commented that he has been called Mark, and his wife Angella is sometimes referred to as Pamela. “Anyone have a word for this close-but-no-cigar phenomenon?” It led to a lively discussion. Wayword Radio noted that Scott and Todd are often misattributed for the other. Others are Tracy/Terry, and Jessica/Jennifer.

But why?

Someone linked to a 2016 article in Bustle called This Is Why You Confuse People’s Names Sometimes.

The first two examples are rather instinctive. We Confuse Names That Have Similar Beginnings And Endings. Melissa/Marissa, Ashley/Amy. We Tend To Confuse Names With Similar Vowel Placement, such as Nicole/Michelle.

Third, however, is more interesting. We Confuse People Based On Their Group. “There is a connection between calling someone by the wrong name and what’s happening in our heads. Basically, when we remember people, we categorize them in different relationships in our mental storage space — we all have a “family” group, a “close friends” group, a “roommates” group, and so on…

“The tie between them in our memory is how they relate to us specifically. Have you ever called your significant other by your ex’s name without meaning to? As horribly as that tends to go for you in the moment, it actually makes a lot of sense: Your significant other is in the same ‘group’ as your past partners in your brain.”


On the list, someone wrote: “In speech pathology, it is called phonemic paraphasia if you retrieve a word that has similar sounds to the one you really meant to say. It is called semantic paraphasia if you retrieve a word that has a relationship in meaning to the one you really meant to say.”

This explains how I’ve confused the names of sister #1 with my wife, who are both left-handed and both born in July. Or sister #2 with my daughter, who are the youngest in the respective nuclear families.

For Catherine, it may have been a combo of the friend group and the fact that both Roger and George have a “jay” sound.” This article says we mix people’s names because you might care about them, so that’s nice.

For further entertainment

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